For 10 years, Leslie P. Smith, a Virginia lawyer, reluctantly kept a secret because the authorities on legal ethics told him he had no choice, even though his information could save the life of a man on death row, one whose case had led to a landmark Supreme Court decision.
Mr. Smith believed that prosecutors had committed brazen misconduct by coaching a witness and hiding it from the defense, but the Virginia State Bar said he was bound by legal ethics rules not to bring up the matter. He shared his qualms and pangs of conscience with only one man, Timothy G. Clancy, who had worked on the case with him.
But the situation changed last year, when Mr. Smith took one more run at the state bar’s ethics counsel. “I was upset by the conduct of the prosecutor,” Mr. Smith wrote in an anguished letter, “and the situation has bothered me ever since.”
Reversing course, the bar told Mr. Smith he could now talk, and he did. His testimony caused a state court judge in Yorktown, Va., to commute the death sentence of Daryl R. Atkins to life on Thursday, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
Executions in Virginia usually occur within seven years of the imposition of a death sentence, legal experts there said. So in a typical case — without the intervention of the Supreme Court — Mr. Atkins would be dead by now and Mr. Smith’s revelations would have done him no good.
An individual stands up to the terrible power of the state.